Grace and Beauty in Perfect Harmony
—Reflections on Designing the Mountain Resort Medals of the Classical Garden Series
Yu Songmei, designer of the Mountain Resort medals of the Classical Garden series
March 20, 2015
The Pine and Crane Mansion where "Green pines coil outside, and white cranes dance in the courtyard" (poetic lines from Emperor Qian Long – translator), the Mid-Lake pavilion where fish swim amidst blue waves and ripples, and the character 避 with an extra stroke in 避暑山庄 (Mountain Resort – translator): All this intuitively came to my mind when I received the assignment for the design of the Mountain Resort medal. However, when I tried to put my pencil to the drafting board, the view of the pleasant and peaceful lake broke up, leaving me with no idea where to start.
I know the place so well, because it is my hometown, with fond memories of childhood laughter and scampering sika deer, where my best friends and relatives still live. When they learned that my mentor arranged this design work for me, they were more excited than I was, and asked me back for a site tour. My mind traveled afar before my body even made a slight move… I needed to set foot on the ground, to piece together the scattered image, and to find the soul of the Mountain Resort for the little medal.
The get-together took place right across the Lizheng Gate. With a few cups of wine, the free spirit of the Northerners started to prevail, intermingled with some royal grandeur. Our topics went from the individual sites in the Resort, to legends and mythology; from the prosperity of the Qing Dynasty, to the ruthless trample by the enemies; from the glory of frontier exploration, to the crushing sense of defeat when the "Sino-Russian Beijing Agreement" was signed; from harmonization of all the nationalities, to the slogan of "Mountain Resort in Harmonious Chengde" promoted by the City of Chengde (where the Mountain Resort is located – translator). Too much was symbolized by and embodied in the Mountain Resort, which was not only a condensed version of all the gardens in China, but also a condensed history that warranted deep reflection. At that moment, the character 避 with an extra stroke came to my mind once more. That extra stroke was added by Emperor Kangxi because he wanted to make it different from the original character, which meant "escape" or "flee from." With this extra stroke, the character did not mean "escape" anymore. But, as fate would have it, it became a refuge in the end anyway. The longest royal palace wall in the world (Mountain Resort was a royal palace – translator) came in sight when I lifted my eyes. It is called "tiger-skin pattern wall" because it was build with stones with tiger-skin patterns. This wall, like the more magnificent Great Wall, failed to stop enemy invasions. There is a lion standing next to the Lizheng Gate. The lion has many characteristics attributed to it. It is seen as a protector of our residence to deter evil spirits, and an enabler of good luck and power. But to me the lion stands for justice and strength, as witnessed in Lion King. Only with lion-like power can we defend our beautiful homeland. The wall, no matter how high, which represented door closing policies, won't work even a bit. My heart was deeply touched at the moment, with some moisture at the corners of my eyes. I was absolutely sure that was the soul of the Mountain Resort. Naturally, I adopted its door plaque and the Qing Dynasty art treasure - the copper Lion - in my design as the representative of the Mountain Resort itself.
The initial field visit was short, but with a lot of clamor. In addition to hundreds of photos, I also brought back the weight of entrustment. I needed to find a form for the soul I discovered. The hundreds of photos were all nice and beautiful, not only covering the 72 sites royally designated by Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, but also showing the bright smiles and graceful figures of humans. Every photo was nice, but it could not completely represent the image of the Mountain Resort in my mind. Probably the garden would defy this form of representation. Probably it was calling for another visit.
After numerous drafts, I felt that I was at my wits' end. A decision was made to have another visit of the Mountain Resort. This time I went quietly, all by myself. When I stepped into the Resort with the day hardly breaking, the mist typical of Jiangnan (lower Yangtze River Valley and vicinity – translator) was still hanging low. After passing the pavilion bridge and roaming through the grassland and vegetable fields, I started to appreciate the vastness and brightness of the highland at noontime. The Mountain Resort revealed its true self this way. Only through such close contacts with the Resort did I realize its beautiful landscaping principle of "building human-made beauty into nature, in harmony with nature and going beyond it." It was rightfully awarded the reputation of "the epitome of Chinese geography", and "the top representation of classical Chinese gardens."
After this field trip, the bits and pieces of the fabulous Resort started to fall together, like a long horizontal scroll of painting, with colorful and rich snapshots. This painting scroll folded along the natural terrain, following mountains and waters. It flowed harmoniously, combining gardening arts from both Southern and Northern China. As a result, the palace buildings in the design merged into the natural background. Moreover, water rushing down high mountains, as well as vegetation variations such as lotus leaves vs. pines and cypresses, brought out the unique geographical features of the Mountain Resort. This range of varying vegetation is hardly present in other gardens.
At that moment, the Mountain Resort transformed in my mind from an abstract concept –a soul - into a complete physical form. When I finally smiled at the completed draft, I was thrilled as well as sentimental, long lost in its rich history and awe-inspiring views. I felt embraced by the Resort once more.
Grace and beauty in perfect harmony: as the biggest royal garden in China and a World's Cultural Heritage site, the Mountain Resort will have a spectacular future.